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World | National

21 Filipino U.N. peacekeepers taken hostage by Syrian rebels now in Jordan

InterAksyon.com
The online news portal of TV5

(UPDATED, Sunday 1:16 A.M.) AMMAN - Twenty-one Filipino UN peacekeepers seized by Syrian rebels on the Golan Heights arrived in Jordan on Saturday, hours after their captors released them from an ordeal of more than three days.

"They arrived in Jordan; they are on Jordanian land now," Jordanian government spokesman Samih Maaytah told AFP.

The United Nations and the Philippines government also confirmed that the 21 members of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), had crossed safely into Jordan from Syria where rebels battling the Syrian regime seized them on Wednesday.

"We can confirm that the peacekeepers have been released," UN peacekeeping spokeswoman Josephine Guerrero said in New York.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the release but said all sides in the Syrian conflict must respect the "impartiality" of UNDOF which monitors a ceasefire line between Syria and Israel in the strategic Golan plateau.

Ban "appreciates the efforts of all concerned to secure their safe release," said a statement released by his press office after the Filipinos crossed from Syria into Jordan.

"The secretary general emphasizes to all parties the impartiality of United Nations peacekeepers," it added.

Authorities in Manila expressed relief.

"Our 21 peacekeepers are now in the custody of the Jordanian border patrol headquarters. We were able to verify this through a telephone call placed by one of the men to their battalion commander," Philippine military spokesman Colonel Arnulfo Burgos told AFP.

He said no decision was taken about where the peacekeepers will go next but that Manila's envoy to Amman, Olivia V Palala, "will be directly coordinating with the Jordanian authorities for their turnover to us."

"The Filipino UN peacekeeping contingent's (to the Golan Heights) commander, Colonel Cirilito Sobejana, is now on his way to Jordan to meet his men," he added.

Ambassador Palala told AFP the peacekeepers were heading from the borders to the Royal Armed Forces headquarters in eastern Amman, and are unharmed.

"We contacted them and they are all ok, safe and sound," she said.

Palala, who earlier expected to meet them at the border, said she was now waiting for the peacekeepers at the headquarters of Jordan's armed forces.

"They are on their way now to Amman, they will be coming by 7:30 pm (1730 GMT)," she said, adding that future plans for them will be made in coordination with the United Nations.

The peacekeepers were abducted by rebels from the Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade just a mile to the Syrian side of the armistice line with Israel that followed the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, in the village of Jamla.

The rebels demanded that Syrian troops move 20 kilometres (12 miles) back from Jamla and that the International Committee of the Red Cross "guarantees the safe exit from the strife-torn area of Jamla of civilians," said the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman.

On Friday a UN attempt to pick up the peacekeepers was aborted when Syrian troops shelled the area.

Syria denied the shelling and on Saturday the foreign ministry sent letters to Ban and the UN Security Council "condemning attacks by terrorist groups against UN forces and residents" near the armistice line, SANA news agency said.

It also called on the UN to "clearly condemn terrorist groups" -- the term used by the regime to describe the rebels, the official Syrian news agency added.

The abduction -- the first of its kind since the conflict erupted in Syria nearly two years ago -- was condemned by world powers and triggered a flurry of diplomatic action to secure the peacekeepers' release.

It also sparked fears that more governments would withdraw their contingents from the already depleted UN mission.

Israeli officials warned that any further reduction in UNDOF strength risked creating a security vacuum in the no-man's land between the two sides on the strategic Golan plateau, which it seized in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Meanwhile, Syrian troops bombarded on Saturday several rebel-held areas near Damascus, where 10 people, including three children, were killed in clashes between troops and rebels, the Observatory said.

In the northwest, near the Turkish border, several areas were the target of regime bombings that also left three children from one family dead in the village of Deir Sita.

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